1. Shops. Save all your empty grocery cartons for a week or so and you’ll soon have a shop any aspiring grocer would be proud of. Gluing down the flaps makes cereal boxes, jelly packets etc. look unopened. Clothes, shoes, and toys can all be used as “stock”. Paper bags and real or play money add to the fun.
2. Doctors/Nurses. A roll of white toilet tissue makes this game much more fun as Dads, Grans, teddies or dolls are bandaged before your eyes. Plastic medicine spoons and cardboard box hospital beds for toys are extra props that make the game last longer.
3. Tubes. Cardboard tubes from kitchen roll or foil make instant telescopes for sailors, or tunnels to roll marbles through.
4. Cardboard boxes must be about the best free toys you can get hold of. Push in the ends of large ones to make tunnels and caves to crawl through. Draw on windows and doors with felt tip pens to make a house, add a flag and portholes for a boat or paper plates and a steering wheel for a car.
5. Miniature gardens. The foil trays that pies and prepared foods arrive in make lovely containers for miniature gardens. The children can enjoy hunting around the park or garden for twigs to make trees, moss for a lawn, stones to arrange as a rockery or a waterfall. Keep twigs or stones where you want them with a little blue tack or plasticine. Add toy people or animals and maybe a little water if the container is watertight. This can be a very creative and enjoyable exercise if you have children of very different age groups to entertain. A variation is to use play sand (not builder’s sand – it stains everything yellow) to make a beach scene, maybe adding shells, stones and a blue paper sea.
6. Paper puppets. A picture of anything – colourful bird, clown’s face, animal or cartoon character, carefully cut out by an adult and stuck to the top of a strip of card about five inches long and one and a half inches wide becomes a very easily made puppet. These give such pleasure and are so easy to make that you will probably end up with dozens of them. Magazine pictures can be stuck on to folded card to make theatre set background and wings.
7. Potato prints. After cutting a potato in half, draw on a simple shape. A triangle, circle or star perhaps. Cut away the rest of the potato, leaving a shape to dip into paint and print on to paper.
8. Skittles. Skittles can be improvised from large plastic cola or lemonade bottles. A little sand or water in the bottom makes them more stable. A good game for learning to count.
9. Dens. Building a den must be one of the most memorable parts of childhood as we all seem to recall the bliss of blankets draped over the airing rack in the garden or over the backs of chairs indoors. Even today’s sophisticated kids seem to find the thought much more exciting than just erecting the shop bought plastic play house. I think the secret is to give structural advice about making the thing stay upright, but let the children do as much as possible themselves. Really large boxes of the type that washing machines and fridges come in can be had for the asking from the big electrical goods retailers and are useful for rooms within dens. Indoors, one of the simplest dens can be made by throwing a large sheet or duvet over a table. Cushions, torches, biscuits and books will all be needed at the housewarming.
10. Sewing cards. Stick a picture on to a postcard or draw a simple duck, car or teddy shape. With a bodkin needle push holes around the outline of your design about one inch apart. Using brightly coloured wool in the bodkin or a long bootlace, thread in and out of the holes.
11. Stilts. You need to do a little drilling for this one. Take two strong tins, coffee or clean paint tins are ideal, and drill a hole about one inch from the top on opposite sides of the tin. Insert a length of string and knot securely. Check that the handle is at a comfortable length for the child before knotting the other side. These are always very popular, but never leave young children alone with them especially near stairs or steps.
12. Cafes. Children’s tea sets are a handy prop for this game, but a picnic set or microwave cookware is just as good. Giving the waiter/waitress a little notebook and pencil to take orders and making a tall white hat from a cylinder of paper for the chef will add realism. Sit dolls and teddies around as well as willing Aunts and Grannies for extra customers.
13. Playdough. Mix together two cups of flour, one cup of salt, one cup of water, one tablespoon of oil and a few drops of food colouring for an easy to make dough that will keep for about three weeks if you wrap it in polythene and keep it in the fridge. All you have to do is knead the mixture well. Divide the mixture up first if you have more than one colour available.
14. Obstacle course. An obstacle course can turn a rainy day into an adventure. Use whatever you have available. A bench to walk the plank, cushion stepping stones across shark infested seas, through a cardboard box tunnel, up a chair mountain or through a duvet cave. The wilder your imagination the more your children will love it.
15. Easy boats. Recycle your empty margarine cartons. Use them as boats for the bath or paddling pool. These are so easy that even very young children can help to make them. Cut out triangular sail shapes from white or coloured paper. Make a small hole at the top and bottom of the sail so that you can push through a straw to make a mast. Let the child fix this to the bottom of a clean margarine tub with a lump of blue tack or plasticine. They sail extremely well and will even take a couple of toy people on an exciting cruise.
16. Leaf art. Collect leaves and draw around them. This is fun for little ones and an educational tree identification game for older children. Colour in the details with crayons or paints. The leaves could then be stuck on to paper collage style or dipped into paint and then pressed firmly on to paper for a lovely leaf print.
17. Make a puzzle. Stick a favourite picture on to card and allow to dry with a heavy book on top. Cut into pieces, how many depending on the age of the child, for an almost instant and personal puzzle.